Okay, that’s not really a study, and honestly, it’s not really news. But you don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to see with your own eyes that our obesity crisis is spreading across the land like cream cheese on a hot bagel. In fact, more than one in three Americans is obese—not pudgy, not hefty, not “could lose a few pounds,” but clinically obese.
Or let me put it another way: Thirty-six percent of Americans have a food-related medical condition that is threatening their very lives.
Surely, food must be the enemy, yes? Well, perhaps, but there’s something very strange, and very telling, about that statistic. It’s 36 percent of Americans who are overweight. But in France, where they invented French fries, the obesity rate is less than half of what it is in the home of the brave. In Italy—land of the calzone and the meatball—the obesity rate is just 20 percent. And in Spain it’s just 23 percent, despite the fact that they’re all sitting down to multi-course dinners at 11 pm.
Oh, and one thing you won’t find in those countries? Health clubs sprouting up like mushrooms. In many of these countries, pulling a stubborn cork out of a bottle of Bourdeux counts as exercise.
Now compare those countries to America. The weight-loss market here is worth more than $60 billion, there’s a Gold’s Gym or Bally Total Fitness on just about every corner, and your Aunt Mathilde is on her 37th new diet of the past ten years. So what are we doing wrong? Or, more important: What are they doing right?
It’s simple. We fear food; they embrace it. We deprive and then reward ourselves; they simply indulge. We try to decide whether we deserve one more Low-Fat Oreo, while they chow down on delicious, rich, and flavorful four-course meals. But here’s the good news: By adopting traits from the most vibrant food cultures around the globe, we can begin to develop one of our own—and enjoy those same waist-whittling effects. Below are top weight-loss secrets from the world’s thinnest food-loving nations.
In Spain . . . They Eat Slowly
A well-crafted meal takes time to appreciate. After all, the quicker you swallow, the less time food has to tantalize the tiny flavor receptors on your tongue. Spaniards know this—and they know that food is meant to bring together friends and family—which is why they pioneered the notion of tapas. Tapas are small dishes meant to be consumed slowly and conscientiously. When Spaniards eat tapas, they take breaks between bites. They chew slowly and break for conversation. And as it turns out, that helps them shed flab. Researchers at the University of Rhode Island recently found that the average BMI of slow eaters is markedly lower than that of fast eaters. The reason, most likely, is that eating slowly gives your stomach time to tell your brain that you’re full.
In Italy . . . They Value Quality Over Quantity
When most Americans think of food value, they think of Chinese buffets, unlimited breadsticks at Olive Garden, and endless fries at Red Robin. But the Italians view things differently. An endless supply of food means nothing if said food is cheaply made and loaded with unsavory processed ingredients. Think Italians eat jarred marinara? Of course not. They crush up tomatoes and simmer them alongside herbs, garlic, and olive oil. It’s a quick recipe built on high-quality, natural ingredients. That means nothing unpronounceable and nothing prepared in a lab.
In Greece . . . They Focus On Produce
So attuned to a meat-and-potatoes diet are most Americans that we’ve allowed french fries to become the most popular “vegetable” in the country. But Greece, a Mediterranean country, vegetables dominate—and legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats play powerful supporting roles. Now here’s why we should follow suit: Penn State researchers found that people who stick to high-produce diets eat more food, but weigh less.
In Latin America . . . They Eat Seasonally And Locally
Picture a strawberry harvested in June, trucked across the country, and stored in a warehouse for eight or nine months. These are the berries in your supermarket right now. Not only are they bland and starchy, but it’s quite likely that they’re also nutritionally inferior. The USDA suggests that it’s much more likely that food grown within 100 miles will make it from vine to plate faster and retain more nutrients than its conventional counterpart. Latin America is loaded with local produce, which means plenty of fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables and regional food cultures unmatched by anything in the United States.
In France . . . They Tune Out All Distractions
Plenty of American dinners take place in front of the TV, but for the French, a meal is an event, and the television is nothing but unwelcome competition. No wonder they’re thinner: In a study published in Physiology and Behavior, subjects consumed 71 percent more mac and cheese when they ate in front of the TV. What’s more, the French are far more likely to plan their multi-course meals in advance. A Dutch study found that people who think ahead about their next meals have greater success with weight loss.